This post contains major spoilers for Chainsaw Man.
Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man is an obvious departure from the usual plucky shounen prototype. It purposefully doesn’t pull any punches, and of course there’s the over-the-top violence to be expected from its title, pushed to the point of senselessness. The specific departure I liked, though, was whatever point was being made about having dreams.
I use the word “dream” specifically because 1. it’s the word used in the translation of Chainsaw Man I read, and 2. it has a loftiness to it that’s basically its point. Dreams are a common, if not irreplaceable driving force in shounen series. Often it’s a situation like Naruto wanting to gain recognition from the village that shunned him by becoming its leader, something showy that seems impossible, can keep a series going, and separates the main character from the rest. Often it’s intertwined with another popular concept—backstory. What grand, moral and/or personal reason keeps a story’s characters willing to keep pushing forward?
For Denji that thing is normalcy. Having a beaten down protagonist is common, but Denji is really beaten down. He has no family, and is poor from a debt to yakuza his dead father left him with, which he pays off by hunting devils. Often compared to a dog—for his obedience and his simple-mindedness, which often go hand in hand—he’s just trying to survive. But unlike the cases where a character strives for something larger than life regardless (if not because of) their situation, in the first chapter Denji rambles to his pet devil, Pochita, about how bread, their only meal for the day, is normally meant to be eaten with jam.
Like in many establishing chapters, the protagonist reveals his dream. The difference, though, is that this isn’t a proud declaration to some other party in a heightened action scene. Denji mentions it to his companion amongst other relatively mundane desires, such as being with a girl, which is what he’d ask for if he had one wish.
Maybe paying off a debt might seem a more linear goal for a shounen series, and maybe openly wishing for a girlfriend comes off as a little silly. Denji’s life sucks, shouldn’t he ask for, or at least want more? But the blatant deliveries makes the point clear: “Well, normality’s just a dream for us,” he says, bread in hand. Denji wasn’t born without superpowers in a superhero society like Deku in My Hero Academia, and he’s not trying to turn his demon sister back into a human like Tanjirou in Demon Slayer. He has real world problems and real world desires. Problems and desires a reader could easily have.
Dreams are repeatedly brought up in Chainsaw Man’s first chapter. Dreaming in itself, having them, is what keeps Denji going. His anxiety keeps him awake so he opts to dream, and when he’s quickly being shuffled back to his job that same night, he remarks that he can’t even be left to do that. When the gang kills him, his final thoughts are “I just wanted to dream about a normal life. But ya couldn’t even let me have that much?” By saying anything can be a dream Fujimoto pokes fun at their usage in shounen, but he also shows that dreams are important, no matter what they are. Denji’s “simple” desires inspire Pochita to live on as his heart, turning him into the Chainsaw Man that gets the series kicking.
Denji’s wants, both in their everydayness and in their lack of specificity to him, might offer a more genuine reflection of real life, especially considering Fujimoto’s apparent penchant for suffusing the series with realism. But this isn’t all Chainsaw Man has to say on the topic. Thus, Fujimoto presents Aki as a more typical shounen character, because his goals are more typical: he’s intent on killing the Big Bad—literally called the “Gun Devil”—that killed his family. Aki’s relationship to Denji mimics the trope of having a rival. It’s probably not a stretch to say Denji and Aki are opposites for the purpose of contrast. They’re both capable devil hunters, but Aki is knowledgable of the world they’re in and has a strict moral code against devils—he’s more sensible, while Denji will accept anything that accepts him and isn’t one for using his head.
These differences are especially important when it comes to their reasons for killing devils. Denji does it for a living, less bothered by the fact that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t than he is concerned with how he’s finally living his dream life: hot showers, three meals a day, and in close proximity to an attractive girl. Fujimoto continues to poke fun with Denji, who has to keep coming up with new, similarly simple if not outright comical, things to aim for in order to keep himself pumped to fight. His reasons for fighting are easy to understand without context, even if the average person wouldn’t put their life on the line just to eat bread with jam. But Denji isn’t average. He still has his own specific brand of zaniness that makes him the main character of a shounen, and in Chainsaw Man, that kind of unpredictability makes a good devil hunter.
Compare this to Aki whose reasons are too straightforward, read: cliché, if we’re going with the idea that this is a commentary on the genre. There are at least a few times where Aki’s dream is positioned as the more respectable between the two, but the comparison isn’t being made because we’re meant to actually believe that. Kishibe, one of the strongest devil hunters in the bureau and a kind of mentor figure for junior members, praises Denji for not entertaining something like revenge, because revenge gets devil hunters killed. Aki’s co-worker Himeno constantly agonizes over trying to get him to quit. The simple truth is that devil hunting is dangerous, and they’re only humans—Aki is no different from the horde of devil hunters who join the bureau because the Gun Devil killed their families, and by the end of the series he’s gruesomely punished for it.
It’s okay to dream, but Fujimoto’s realistic spins on shounen tropes aren’t without purpose. Nobody, not even Denji, is really rewarded in this manga with what they dream about, regardless of how easy it should be to come by what they want. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad to dream. The punishment comes, I think, more as an inescapable result of the situations the characters are in.
There comes a point in the manga where Aki realises that he doesn’t want to kill the Gun Devil anymore. After hitting the gas towards the end of his life for the entire series, he finds something he’s better off living for—making sure Denji and Power are alive and happy. Maybe more accurately, he finds something he’s scared to lose if he holds onto his original goal. I don’t remember cases in other series where a character shown to have strong convictions gets cold feet, as he puts it, because shounen prizes having an unshakable resolve. For devil hunters resolve is definitely important, but it’s not worth more than being alive. The problem is that Aki comes to this realisation when it’s much too late. The supernatural powers that be are already bent on ensuring that everything that can go wrong will, because that’s what supernatural powers in shounen manga are for. And when the characters behave as expected for a shounen series—signing up to be devil hunters, that’s where the realism that makes Chainsaw Man a commentary on the genre shines: they get killed by devils.
What this all seems to be, then, is a sort of warning against or criticism of the trope of single-mindedly throwing one’s life away, let alone in an effort to achieve the genuinely impossible. Aki makes it clear until the end that he’s willing to keep shortening his lifespan in his singular devotion to his goals, and that would’ve presented a glaring issue, one that wasn’t really touched on, if he’d actually managed to live past them. The idea that what Aki is doing is respectable is tossed out early, to others it’s actually concerning, and they were right to be concerned. Demonstrated by his final arc, Fujimoto simply presents a painfully obvious conclusion. How else could anyone have expected that to go, if not absolutely horribly?
So what about Denji? At best when he gets what he wants its lacklustre, at worst it horribly backfires. The most poignant example would be his fulfillment of what the reader thinks the end goal of the series, killing the Gun Devil, is, and getting his prize from Makima for doing so. Both of those things involved killing his best friends.
I think both Denji and Aki’s cases go back to what I said about the problem being the situations they’re in, which is part of the overall commentary. For one thing, many series with fantasy elements tend to avoid the hopelessness of supernatural, otherworldly beings with a grip that’s too strong on human society. Shounen usually shows that there’s always a way out, somehow, or that there’s more wins than losses to be had. This is obviously not the case in Chainsaw Man, where a large chunk of the cast dies abruptly simply because they’re involved. Worse so with Makima pulling the strings. The feeling of despair snowballs once she plays her cards.
Still, Chainsaw Man would be pretty harsh if after all that there wasn’t any hope to be found at all. The painful futility of Aki’s situation might be expected, but it isn’t the only possible outcome. Achieving what you want, or maybe more importantly, happiness, requires flexibility. When the characters saw the fire and stuck their hand in they always got burned, but this was a world where devil hunters could resign if they wanted to.
I don’t think this means you’re not supposed to dream, or worry arbitrarily about what can or can’t be done in any given situation. Maybe Fujimoto is trying to complicate the idea that there’s honour to be found in locking yourself into something—a dream, a way of life, whatever—when people are beings that change and grow and find new things to live for. Aki didn’t “give up” on his dream to kill the Gun Devil, he was just able to find something that actually made his life meaningful. Similarly, whenever Denji became satisfied, he decided to go after something new, because that’s just what people do. Denji’s final realization was the importance of having new things to strive for and look forward to in life.
I want to take a look at the final chapter. Despite how harrowing this series can get, it ends with some pretty comforting ideas. This isn’t out of nowhere. The importance of friendship and family was being established from the very beginning with Denji and Pochita finding solace in each other. There’s the family Denji, Power and Aki, made with each other too, and how important that becomes to all three of them. Maybe there’s even Denji’s constant lust, if you want to read it as a desire for love and human relationships and why that’s important. Humans are social creatures.
By the end, all anybody really wanted was other people in their lives in a way that mattered. This is true for the Control Devil as much as it is for Pochita, and it isn’t as easy to get or have as people think.
This, and a scene in the first chapter I mentioned where Denji, in death, notes that he isn’t even allowed to dream, present a concept I found interesting back when I first saw something similar in Demon Slayer.
(The following image contains Demon Slayer spoilers for Chapter 186.)
I think the actual scenes from the manga do a better job of expressing themselves. Really, the idea that one can want things that aren’t “too much”, but still can’t have them because of some force in the world, feels oppressive. Because it is, and maybe that’s why a genre meant for young audiences tends to avoid it outright. In the end, I don’t mean to say, in any capacity, that darker or more realistic themes makes for a better piece of work. But I do appreciate the ways Chainsaw Man complicates existing tropes by bringing a lot of obvious realities to the forefront. Somehow amongst all the gratuitous violence it focuses its attention on things that really matter—on cruel forces that need to be done away with, on friends and family, on how what seems like a little can actually be a lot, on how it’s okay to want more.
When Pochita dies that first time Denji asks himself if he wanted too much, if he should’ve been happy with what he had. But he didn’t have anything! And it’s good that he comes to that realization quickly, himself. Sure, there’s honour in a life devoted to making up for something that was lost, but it’s nice to see acknowledgement of how unfair it is that something was taken, or that it can’t be had, in the first place.